Chinese public intellectuals have traditionally taken on the responsibility of acting as whistleblowers who call out egregious faults in the system. However, they are no longer as highly respected as they used to be, at least in cyberspace. Today, they are commonly referred to as gongzhi on Chinese social media — a term that has recently become thought of as derogatory.
One user on Weibo — China’s largest online microblogging platform — recently published a particularly contemptuous post declaring that the country’s biggest challenge was “not foreign military power, but the ubiquitous condescension from public intellectuals.” Another user also lambasted established literati, stating: “Real patriots see the continuous progress China is making. Those traitors call themselves public intellectuals, but they are only clinging to the past, or fabricating negative information.”
The majority of today’s public intellectuals are over 40 years old. They grew up in the 1980s, a time when Chinese society, having just emerged from the tumultuous 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, looked toward the West as a paragon for reform. For many intellectuals, Western political models still inform the standard by which the success of reform in China is judged.
However, the country’s most active internet users were only born in the ’90s. Growing up, they have witnessed China’s economic development and transformation into a geopolitical power, and have become more assertively nationalistic than their predecessors. Many of those have traveled to Europe or the U.S. during their formative years, and hold a more nuanced view of the West that accounts for the shortcomings of its political systems and contrasts with the liberal paradise so vaunted by the previous generation. As a result, instead of worshipping the West, they are more inclined to defend China.
By and large, public intellectuals are depicted on social media as people in thrall to Western culture — particularly the United States — who may also view China as a hopeless basket case unable to overcome the problems inherent in its sociopolitical system. Based on these generalizations, countless internet jokes have been shared that mock public intellectuals for their so-called pro-U.S. and anti-China stances.
One joke imagines a scenario in which a group of American children are horsing around on a bus. An intellectual smiles at their tomfoolery and says, “Look at those lively kids! Children who come out of the Chinese education system are usually so dull.” Later, the same intellectual catches sight of a group of Chinese children doing the same thing. Disappointed, he laments, “This reflects the poor character of the Chinese people! This is a public place! The parents should set a good example for their kids. It just goes to show how low the standards of Chinese parents are.”
Just over a decade ago, public intellectuals were still highly revered in Chinese society. The term gongzhi was first introduced to the public domain by the then newly-established magazine Southern People Weekly. An article published in September 2004 entitled “China’s 50 Most Influential Public Intellectuals” defined those included in the list as well-known academics and professionals, public activists, and idealists with an exceptional ability to think critically and examine social morality.
In my opinion, there are two reasons why public intellectuals have been stigmatized in the last decade or so. First, the expansion of social networks on the Chinese internet has given public intellectuals unprecedented influence. However, in this case, the internet is a double-edged sword, and it has also made it easier than ever for users to gain recognition. The result has been an upsurge in self-styled public intellectuals with often questionable credentials.
Back in 2004, the majority of inclusions in the Southern People Weekly list were distinguished scholars such as historians Yuan Weishi and Zhu Xueqin, and writer Wu Si. Nowadays, however, the definition of gongzhi has been expanded to represent practically any public figure who holds a liberal political position, regardless of the logic behind their opinions.
In fact, some online intellectuals have already revealed their knowledge and moral standards to be far from watertight. In October 2016, for example, civil rights commentator Yao Bo — better known by his Weibo account name, Wuyuesanren, which has over 2 million followers — posted: “As a middle-aged man with a certain degree of experience and wealth, I truly believe that I can date any good-looking girl I like.” Yet such misogynistic remarks are hardly in keeping with the brand of gender equality he claims to espouse.
At around the same time, a photo circulated online in which a student was shown apparently prostrating himself before renowned novelist Zheng Shiping, better known by his nom de plume, “Yefu.” Zheng, who has always professed to be liberal-minded, attempted to brush off the incident, saying: “I am a liberal, but I am also a cultural conservationist.” For the kowtowing student at his feet, however, such a statement likely had a contradictory ring to it.
Second, many established public intellectuals have yet to find the most efficient way of communicating with China’s most active internet users. Unaware of the generation gap between them and their web-savvy followers, their online behavior can sometimes prove provocative for social media users.
From the outset, public intellectuals failed to grasp the nature of opposition voices on the internet. Instead, they derided them with the term wumaodang, or “fifty-cent party,” likening them to the Chinese government’s hired forum posters who allegedly earn 0.5 yuan ($0.07) for each pro-government comment. Internet patriots, predictably, found such a moniker insulting.
Despite realizing that not all online patriots are hired guns, public intellectuals continue to treat them with contempt. In 2016, the term “little pinko” began to be used against vociferously nationalist online groups. The term was co-opted by some academics, who even went on to sneer at patriots for being “ignorant little girls.” The irony of the liberal literati class resorting to such misogynistic mudslinging was not lost on the pinkos themselves.
What established intellectuals did not recognize is that by lowering themselves to the point of merely labeling those who hold opposing views, they polarized the debate and focused attention away from the real issues. In addition, intellectuals left themselves, in turn, at risk of being labeled. This is exactly what happened, as the word gongzhi has since been commandeered by online patriots as a term of abuse.
Today’s internet users often express distaste at the manner in which established public intellectuals broadcast their ideas. To the younger generation, an irrepressible aura of elitism shrouds those who use the web to preach a condescending discourse more suited to the ’80s than today. Far from winning the respect of young netizens, such loftiness is, in their minds, merely worthy of mockery.
Creaking under a tirade of resentful invective, online discourse today is rarely strong enough to support reasonable debate for very long. What is at play here is a power struggle between so-called establishment intellectuals driven by an obsolete form of idealism and new groups of well-coordinated, vociferous internet commentators unwilling to tolerate any anti-patriotic sentiment. Established public intellectuals should understand that by contributing to the polarization of public discussion, they are pushing young people to think in extreme terms. Surely the most liberal approach would be for intellectuals to assert themselves in more nuanced language, putting forth their arguments in patient, polite, and tolerant terms.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.
Editor: Olivia Yang